Donald Trump liable for $355 million, judge in New York civil fraud case rules

Donald Trump has denied wrongdoing and called the case a political vendetta by New York Attorney-General Letitia James, an elected Democrat

Updated - February 17, 2024 11:24 am IST

Published - February 17, 2024 01:59 am IST

Former U.S. President Donald Trump. File.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump. File. | Photo Credit: Reuters

A New York judge ruled on Friday against Donald Trump, imposing a $355 million (more than ₹2900 crore) penalty over what the judge ruled was a yearslong scheme to dupe banks and others with financial statements that inflated the former President’s wealth.

Mr. Trump also was barred from serving as an officer or director of any New York corporation for three years.

However, the judge backed away from an earlier ruling that would have dissolved the former President’s companies.

Mr. Trump’s lawyer Alina Habba called the verdict “manifest injustice” and “the culmination of a multi-year, politically fueled witch hunt.”

Judge Arthur Engoron issued his decision after a 2½-month trial that saw the Republican presidential front-runner bristling under oath that he was the victim of a rigged legal system.

Mr. Engoron concluded that Mr. Trump and his co-defendants “failed to accept responsibility” for their actions and that expert witnesses who testified for the defense “simply denied reality.”

The judge called the civil fraud at the heart of the trial a “venial sin, not a mortal sin.” But Mr. Engoron said the refusal by Mr. Trump and his associates to admit wrongdoing suggested they would continue if not constrained.

“Their complete lack of contrition and remorse borders on pathological,” added Mr. Engoron, a Democrat.

The stiff penalty was a victory for New York Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat, who sued Mr. Trump over what she said was not just harmless bragging but years of deceptive practices as he built the multinational collection of skyscrapers, golf courses and other properties that catapulted him to wealth, fame and the White House.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers had said even before the verdict that they would appeal.

Ms. James sued Mr. Trump in 2022 under a state law that authorizes her to investigate persistent fraud in business dealings.

The suit accused Mr. Trump and his co-defendants of routinely puffing up his financial statements to create an illusion his properties were more valuable than they really were. State lawyers said Mr. Trump exaggerated his wealth by as much as $3.6 billion one year.

By making himself seem richer, Mr. Trump qualified for better loan terms, saved on interest and was able to complete projects he might otherwise not have finished, state lawyers said.

Even before the trial began, Mr. Engoron ruled that Ms. James had proven Mr. Trump’s financial statements were fraudulent. The judge ordered some of Mr. Trump’s companies removed from his control and dissolved. An appeals court put that decision on hold.

Also read:Fraud trial | Michael Cohen testifies against Trump, who calls him ‘proven liar’

In that earlier ruling, the judge found that, among other tricks, Mr. Trump’s financial statements had wrongly claimed his Trump Tower penthouse was nearly three times its actual size and overvalued his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, based on the idea that the property could be developed for residential use, even though he had surrendered rights to develop it for any uses but a club.

Mr. Trump, one of 40 witnesses to testify at the trial, said his financial statements actually understated his net worth and that banks did their own research and were happy with his business.

“There was no victim. There was no anything,” Mr. Trump testified in November.

During the trial, Mr. Trump called the judge “extremely hostile” and the attorney general “a political hack.” In a six-minute diatribe during closing arguments in January, Mr. Trump proclaimed “I am an innocent man” and called the case a “fraud on me.”

Mr. Trump and his lawyers have said the outside accountants that helped prepare the statements should’ve flagged any discrepancies and that the documents came with disclaimers that shielded him from liability. They also argued that some of the allegations were barred by the statute of limitations.

The suit is one of many legal headaches for Mr. Trump as he campaigns for a return to the White House. He has been indicted four times in the last year — accused in Georgia and Washington, D.C., of plotting to overturn his 2020 election loss to Democrat Joe Biden, in Florida of hoarding classified documents, and in Manhattan of falsifying business records related to hush money paid to porn actor Stormy Daniels on his behalf.

On Thursday, a judge confirmed Mr. Trump’s hush-money trial will start on March 25 and a judge in Atlanta heard arguments on whether to remove Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis from his Georgia election interference case because she had a personal relationship with a special prosecutor she hired.

Those criminal accusations haven’t appeared to undermine his march toward the Republican presidential nomination, but civil litigation has threatened him financially.

On Jan. 26, a jury ordered Mr. Trump to pay $83.3 million to writer E. Jean Carroll for defaming her after she accused him in 2019 of sexually assaulting her in a Manhattan department store in the 1990s. That’s on top of the $5 million a jury awarded Carroll in a related trial last year.

In 2022, the Trump Organization was convicted of tax fraud and fined $1.6 million in an unrelated criminal case for helping executives dodge taxes on extravagant perks such as Manhattan apartments and luxury cars.

Ms. James had asked the judge to impose a penalty of at least $370 million.

Mr. Engoron decided the case because neither side sought a jury and state law doesn’t allow for juries for this type of lawsuit.

Because it was civil, not criminal in nature, the case did not carry the potential of prison time.

Ms. James, who campaigned for office as a Mr. Trump critic and watchdog, started scrutinizing his business practices in March 2019 after his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen testified to Congress that Mr. Trump exaggerated his wealth on financial statements provided to Deutsche Bank while trying to obtain financing to buy the NFL’s Buffalo Bills.

Ms. James’ office previously sued Mr. Trump for misusing his own charitable foundation to further his political and business interests. Mr. Trump was ordered to pay $2 million to an array of charities as a fine and the charity, the Trump Foundation, was shut down.

Mr. Trump incorporated the Trump Organization in New York in 1981. He still owns it, but he put his assets into a revocable trust and gave up his positions as the company’s director, president and chairman when he became president, leaving management of the company to sons Eric and Donald Trump Jr.

Mr. Trump did not return to a stated leadership position upon leaving the White House in 2021, but his sons testified he’s been involved in some decision making.

Mr. Engoron had already appointed a monitor, retired federal judge Barbara Jones, to keep an eye on the company.

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